This One Form of Exercise Strengthens Your Body—and Your Brain

Updated 05/06/19
Free People

There has always been much debate about which exercise can best maximize your health. Fitness fads come and go while certain regimens fall in and out of favor. When it comes to exercise affecting the health of your brain, a new study highlighted by The New York Times suggests that one form of exercise has significant benefits that boost brain power.

It turns out that dancing—learning a social dance in particular—improves brain function. The study, conducted by researchers from the University of Illinois in Urbana and published in Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, investigated how different forms of exercise affected the wiring and function of the brains of older individuals. Using MRI brain scans, the researchers tested the mental capacities of 174 healthy people in their 60s and 70s with no signs of cognitive impairment. The researchers then randomly assigned each individual to a different exercise regimen—brisk walking for an hour three times a week, supervised gentle stretching and balance training three times a week, and learning to dance.

Those in the dance group met at a studio three times a week to practice increasingly intricate country-dance choreography. At the end of six months, the participants underwent brain scans again.

The only group that demonstrated improvement in the health of some of their brain's white matter, as compared to six months prior, was the one that practiced dance. The fornix, a part of the brain involved with processing speed and memory, had denser white matter. The study's lead author, Agnieszka Burzynska, PhD, attributes this change to the cognitive demands of the dancing. Mastering new choreography affected the biochemistry of the brain tissue for the better. The takeaway isn't only that choreographed dance can improve brain function, but that "any activities involving moving and socializing" can help to combat brain decline, says Burzynska.

Looking to maximize your fitness routine? Discover the best time to exercise!

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